Before my first trip to Budapest, I honestly didn't know a lot about the city except how beautiful it is. Added to that long list of things I should have but didn't know about this amazing European capital city is that it has a long and robust Jewish heritage, one that is still an important part of life in the city and which can be found throughout the various neighborhoods. Jewish people have called Budapest home since at least the 13th century, when they were invited to settle in Buda. During the medieval ages, like in many European cities, Jews dealt with considerable prejudice against them while at the same time serving important roles in everyday life. By 1930, more than half of all the businesses were either owned or operated by Jewish families, and the Jewish population had grown to more than 200,000 people, representing 5% of the city's populace. Sadly though, after World War I the Hungarian government enacted a series of policies designed to restrict Jewish residents until the Second World War when thousands were sent to their deaths in concentration camps. More than half of Budapest's Jewish community was murdered during the Holocaust, and the ensuing Communist regime didn't allow for freedom of religion, further alienating Jewish families. However, since the fall of Communism the Jewish population has seen a resurgence and it is once again growing, embracing the city in a return to tolerance. As you explore the Jewish heritage of Budapest, be sure to include these important sites.
The old Jewish Quarter in Budapest was an area of several blocks on the Pest side that included the Neolog Dohany Street Synagogue and Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagogue. The Neolog Dohany Street Synagogue is particularly interesting because to this day it's still the second largest synagogue in the world. But that's not the only clue to the incredible prosperity this neighborhood once enjoyed. Walking around the now quiet streets, be sure to look up along the lintels of the homes and businesses. On many of them you'll see a variety of Hebrew words and images, all important indicators of the past. The Neolog Dohany Street Synagogue isn't only notable for its size, but for what you can find there today. A rarity for a synagogue, there is a graveyard on the property, a necessity during World War II when burials weren't permitted outside of the tightly controlled Jewish Ghetto. There is also a memorial to the Righteous Among the Nations, among them a little-known hero: Swiss Vice-consul Carl Lutz.
Known as "Hungary's Schindler," Lutz is credited with saving over 62,000 Jews, the largest rescue operation of Jews of the Second World War. Because of Lutz, half of the Jewish population of Budapest survived and was not deported to Nazi extermination camps during the Holocaust. Prior to the Nazi takeover of Hungary, Lutz helped thousands emigrate by issuing them Swiss safe-conduct documents. In 1944, after the German takeover of Budapest, Lutz negotiated a special deal with the Hungarian government and the Nazis gaining permission to issue even more protective documents to thousands of families. This, along with many other actions during the war, makes Lutz a true hero and well deserved of the designation Righteous Among Nations.
Holocaust Memorial Center
Recognized around the world as one of the most impressive Holocaust centers, the Holocaust Memorial Center pays special tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. Inaugurated in 2004, the complex includes a museum, synagogue, and an inner courtyard with a remarkable memorial. A glass wall is dedicated to the more than 500,000 victims of the Holocaust in Hungary, each with their names inscribed on the wall. The permanent exhibition in the museum tells the important history of the Holocaust through individuals and their unique stories. This is definitely a not to be missed site.
Shoes on the Danube Monument
Walking along the banks of the mighty Danube River, immediately in front of the impressive Hungarian Parliament Building, I first saw them; a line of shoes, all facing the river. I didn't know what they were at first, but my guide quickly explained to me the special significance of this installation. Officially known as The Shoes on the Danube, this special and unique memorial is meant to honor the Budapest Jews who were shot by militiamen between 1944-45. Forced to line up along the banks of the Danube, the victims were callously shot and left to fall into the flowing currents below them. Shoes were valuable though at the time, and so they were instructed to remove them prior to their murders. The memorial is stark and powerful, and one of the best ways I've seen of portraying the horror and inhumanity of the Holocaust.
What else would you add to this list?
Be sure to join the conversation and follow us on Twitter!